Vanity Projects: The Art World Gets its Nails Done


Just because you’re a sophisticated art world doyenne doesn’t mean you can’t have jewel-encrusted nails like Beyonce. At least that’s Rita Pinto’s philosophy.

A New York-based curator with a graduate degree in art business from the Sotheby’s Institute in London, Pinto recently launched Vanity Projects, a salon where patrons can receive manicures from top nail artists while watching video art programmed by guest curators. Only these videos will include works by the likes of Paul McCarthy, Gordon Matta Clark, Ryan Trecartin and even emerging artists like Sophie Lisa Beresford, to name just a few.

Slated to open on the Lower East Side this summer, Vanity Projects has been operating as a pop-up since 2010. “When you’re at a museum, you’re doing a video art drive-by,” Pinto said. “So I thought, what a wonderful way to show it, by putting it in a space where there’s already a captive audience.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, while the Armory Show and other art fairs were occupying New York, A.i.A. visited the Vanity Projects pop-up salon at MoMA PS1. Set up on the floor of the two-story gallery in the midst of a glittery, streamer-filled environment by CONFETTISYSTEMS-an artist design firm that has created sets for Beach House, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the queen herself, Beyonce-the salon sent wafts of nail polish remover up through the lobby. At a Teflon-covered desk in the center of the room, flanked by full work stations at which clients sat receiving $50 manicures, reigned Pinto herself, her long nails covered with dazzling gemstones and images of My Little Pony. “My friends were like, really, My Little Pony for the Armory?”

The salon, which staged pop-up sessions on five recent Saturdays, was an obvious draw, and not not only for girls. As a tiny toddler dressed all in pink dragged her reluctant father down the staircase, Pinto explained how she became interested in nail art. “I was always into hip-hop culture, and was a huge Beastie Boys fan growing up,” she said. “At the time, girls involved in the scene were getting their nails airbrushed.”

The idea to transform the craft into an art business came in 2008, when Pinto reached a fatigue point in her curatorial career, which had included shows at Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center in Athens, Greece, and New York’s now defunct Roebling Hall. Inspired by organizations like No Longer Empty, which was negotiating with landlords on the Lower East Side to fill temporarily vacant spaces with site-specific art installations, Pinto began to wonder how she could transform an art concept into an entrepreneurial idea. Then she met Fleury Rose, a nail artist who has worked on the likes of musician Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine), model Miranda Kerr and actress Rooney Mara. Rose introduced her to the larger nail art community that has formed via blogs and social media. “These girls are mini Internet celebrities,” Pinto explained to me. “They aren’t technicians-they’re true artists.”

It took over four years of slowly building a Rolodex of fashion, beauty and art trendsetters before Pinto really had a breakthrough moment. During that time, she also attended nail art classes at the Christine Valmy beauty school so she could learn to talk shop with the likes of Naomi Yasuda, an impresario who decorates the fingers of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry with the technical precision of a 15th-century Islamic miniaturist.

Then, at the NADA pool party at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012, Pinto met Angela Goding, the assistant director of development at PS1, who invited the Vanity Project to be part of the programming at the museum.

Since opening, the pop-up at PS1 has been visited by the likes of Diana Widmaier-Picasso (the artist’s granddaughter), High Line public art curator Cecilia Alemani and Whitney curator Chrissie Iles. Thanks to its success, Pinto has also raised the final funding for the space on the Lower East Side. There, she will invite a rotating cast of curators and nail artists to participate in residencies.

Pinto believes the Vanity Project will create an environment where classy women can let down their guard and trade gossip and ideas. “Everyone can share resources in a way they never do at formal art events,” she said. “It’s going to be like a beauty shop where, instead of Us Weekly, there’s going to be art magazines.” 

PHOTO: Nail artist Britney Tokyo.